Music

Sonny James: One of Classic Country Music's Most Prolific Hit-Makers

Country western star Sonny James performs at Tennessee State Prison in 1977 at Nashville. (AP Photo)

When it comes to sustained chart success, few can match Sonny James. The singer known as The Southern Gentleman charted 72 pop and country singles between 1953 and 1983, including a five-year run ('67-'71) of 16 straight No. 1 country hits.

The former James Hugh Loden was born on May 1, 1928 in Hackleburg, Alabama. He became a live radio performer at a young age with the Loden Family before finding regional success as a guitarist.

Following a stint serving his country during the Korean War, James moved to Nashville, where he stayed with an old radio acquaintance, Chet Atkins. Around this time, Ken Nelson of Capitol Records met James through Atkins and suggested the simple, easy to remember stage name Sonny James.

James' recording career began as early as 1952, but he did not strike gold until 1956's "Young Love" became a crossover pop hit. That's to say teenagers dug it, and it connected with country music-loving parents.

Hits slowed down quickly after "Young Love," aside from a few scattered top ten entries, including 1963's "The Minute You're Gone." That did not discourage James from putting in the work to build a lasting audience. Key steps toward hits to come included his 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (the first by a country artist) and a 1962 invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry cast. He also appeared on influential radio show the Louisiana Hayride and found early television exposure on the Ozark Jubilee.

Even the most successful country stars when it comes to Billboard chart performances, from Alabama and George Strait to Luke Combs and Taylor Swift, would be giddy over the run James put together starting with the 1964 hit "You're the Only World I Know." It began a streak of 25-straight non-Christmas singles that reached the top 3. Only four of those singles didn't reach No. 1.

James' meteoric rise positioned him for everything from feature film roles, including an appearance in Waylon Jennings' Nashville Rebel, to a co-hosting gig at the inaugural CMA Awards in 1967 alongside Bobbie Gentry.

Those 16 consecutive chart-toppers included several covers of Black artists, including the work of Ivory Joe Hunter ("Since I Met You Baby," "Empty Arms"), Brook Benton ("It's Just a Matter of Time," "Endlessly") and Jimmy Reed ("Bright Lights, Big City"). An earlier No. 1, "Take Good Care of Her," was previously cut by African-American singer turned game show host Adam Wade. His team also found chart success with fresher material, such as the Cindy Walker-written "Heaven Says Hello," and folk and pop covers, including The Seekers' "A World of Our Own," The Searchers' "I'll Never Find Another You" and Roy Orbison's "Only The Lonely."

His 16th straight No. 1 single, "Here Comes Honey Again," broke a record then held by Capitol label mate Buck Owens. The next act to hold the record, RCA Nashville hitmakers Alabama, scored its 17th consecutive non-holiday No. 1 in Aug. 1985 with "40 Hour Week (For a Livin')."

"Is It Wrong (For Loving You)," a country standard previously recorded by Warner Mack and Webb Pierce, became James' final No. 1 in 1974, bumping his career total to 23.

In the early '70s, James began aiding the solo career of a teenager from a famous family. Marie Osmond cut her first three albums with James in the producer's chair. These recordings included "Paper Roses," which made history when it reached No. 1 within a month after Osmond's 14th birthday. She still holds the record for the youngest person to top the country charts.

Honors for James include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and spots alongside backing band The Southern Gentlemen in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (1987) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (2007).

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James and his wife Doris, whom he married in 1957 in Dallas, Texas, spent the final years of his life together in their Tennessee home. One of the best country singers, songwriters and well-rounded entertainers of his time passed away from natural causes on Feb. 22, 2016 at the age of 87.

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Sonny James: One of Classic Country Music's Most Prolific Hit-Makers